Tuesday, 15 May 2012

The future is out of focus

I started this blog post a week or so ago, after I first saw the Saatchi show. Since then, I've read reviews by Ossian Ward from Time Out and Sean O Hagan from The Guardian that put my thoughts into words so much more eloquantly than I would, that I sort of gave up on it.

Basically, the show is, as it is titled, Out of Focus. If this symbolises the future of photography, then frankly, it's depressing. It is rambling, with too many photographers; it is dated, with some new names doing the same old thing (think John Baldessari style of thing); it is a hotch potch of different genres, without giving a smooth overview of the genres of photography (Michael Subotzky, for example, is the only nod to reportage); it is inconsistent, giving some photographers a whole room while others just have a single print.

If nothing else, it is worth the trek to the West End to see a whole room filled with portraits by Katy Grannan. She steals the show; her larger than life portraits of people she has come across on the boulevards of LA and San Francisco are hyper real and evocative of a more glamourous era. Each portrait seems to be a more crumbly version of a celebrity - there is Marilyn Monroe, here is Jimi Hendrix. A modern day Diane Arbus, she seems to have a knack for photographing true characters, and the harsh sunlight and pale backgrounds really put these people under the spotlight.
Katy Grannan
It was also nice to see a room full of John Stezaker work. Even though I had seen his show at Whitechapel Gallery, there was something comforting about seeing that familiar format again; it is so well conceived and yet so simple. Nice to see Elina Brotherus, too (but only one print!) and the discovery of the day for me was the work of David Benjamin Sherry. I was most excited to be seeing the Hannah Starkey work, but this was stuck up on the last floor, and squashed amid some complete tripe that made it feel really insignificant.

In short, the message of this show to me was that the future of photography was going backwards, with photographers once again exploring analogue means of creating an image, and manipulating their work in the darkroom. This harks back to the talk I chaired at Photofusion, which I wrote about here; but to me, those artists I talked about experiment with photography in a much more 21st century way, and if there is a future of photography I consider it to be more like that. But what about reportage photographers? What is the future there? Again we arrive at the same old question of photography vs art. The Saatchi show is full of artists, not photographers. When will this distinction ever end?


  1. I wonder sometimes if we are seeing something like the famous salon debates of the 19th century, when there was an officially approved form of art and the greatest artists, the really ground-breaking ones, were either at the edges or excluded altogether? In short, I wonder how much gallery/art market work will still be valued in 50 or 100 years' time?

    I think that at part of the motive for the move back to analogue is to distinguish oneself from the hoi polloi with their digital cameras. That may be an overly cynical comment - I am sure that most artists make work because it means something to them - but I know that people also want to make works that can be displayed large on gallery walls, and curators and investors want to feel that the work they champion contains craft and quality and exclusivity as well as art. I think that reportage or documentary photography is difficult for those who are not interested in photography per se to appreciate. I find it all very interesting as a study in behaviour and rather suspect that it will get a bit worse before it gets better, and time allows us to separate the wheat from the chaff.

    1. Hi Eileen,
      Thanks for commenting. I think you're right - the move back to analogue is a response against the ubiquity of digital images, and i'm certain that collectors value analogue far more because of their uniqueness, which is akin to value in the art world. I suppose i feel there is a more original approach in works by Julie Cockburn and Carolle Benitah, and that the way the artists in the Saatchi show are doing it feels very dated.

  2. I did enjoy the Photofusion exhibition - will have to make it along to Out of Focus soon to compare and contrast. Thank you for an interesting blog that has got me thinking about this again.


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